Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pulp of the Week - The Lost City of Z


The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
by David Grann
Doubleday, 2009

David Grann's evocatively written "The Lost City of Z" tells the tale of Amazonian explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett and his mysterious disappearance in Brazil in 1925. That three men should disappear without a trace in the wilds of the Amazon is not surprising. But Fawcett's story is genuinely astonishing and Grann's book recounts a time of adventure with gusto and evocative detail.

Fawcett spent a lot of time in the jungle, working for the British Royal Geographic Society, most of it exploring on foot and with very small parties of men. The large boats, amphibious planes, and huge caravans were for others, Fawcett felt that staying close to the rivers, or flying above the forest canopy would cause him to miss too much and maybe miss the clue that would lead him to the lost city that he called "Z."

There were numerous tales of Golden Cities and vast riches to be found in the jungles of South America and Fawcett often found broken bits of pottery and other clues on his treks. He had an amazing constitution and rarely felt any effects in the jungle in contrast to his fellow travelers that suffered malaria, wounds infested with maggots, fevers, and often, death.

Although Fawcett portrayed himself as one, he was not a Colonel. He was a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army. He distinguished himself numerous times in the field leading an Artillery group. He experienced the horrors of war first hand, at one point calling the battlefield, "Armageddon."

He survived the war despite being injured by a gas attack and returned a changed man, yet still determined to find "Z"

His final expedition included his son and his son's best friend. In 1925, the three of them marched into the jungle and were never seen again.

Search parties hunted for them, but they found nothing, or vanished as well. The author himself mounted an after thoroughly researching Fawcett's papers, letters, and journals.

The results of his journey are a fascinating part of the book and he finds some closure, if not Fawcett himself.

For this review I read the hardcover book and I give "The Lost City of Z" an 8.5 out of 10. The tales of the expeditions are harrowing and vivid. David Grann is to be commended for giving adventure readers (and writers) a lot to chew on.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pulp of the Week - Tomorrow Now


Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next 50 Years
Bruce Sterling - 2002

This book is a fascinating look at our possible future circa 2002. Now that we are in that books future, there are a few things that seem dated, but much of the stuff here is a solid bucket of futurism.

Sterling's first chapter is about biotech, and this is really the main place that his SF roots show. In his future, there is hardly an aspect of our lives that won't be impacted by the advent of advanced biotech, genetic engineering or both.

Later chapters discuss the narco-terrorist, new world disorder fighters that are the real enemies of peace. They are sometimes of nations, but are ultimately destabilizing and destructive. The stories of three men that changed that personify this trend and fascinating, particularly the rise of power of Shamil Basaev in Chechnya. He was always about making money and made a lot in the disorder of the the Chechen revolution. Sterling calls him, "an idealistic college dropout with a minor in arms smuggling."

I was quite fascinated as Sterling wrote how a band of thieves and cutthroats defeated a Soviet tank battalion with RPGs and cel phones.

There is a lot of thought provoking material in this book. The final sections are about climate change and the disappearance of glacial ice and its implications for the future.

Sterling proposes that we are at the beginning of one of the periodic mass extinctions that the earth undergoes every few hundred million years. Historically these have been caused by outside factors, mainly meteors, comets, and the like. But this extinction will be caused by human intervention in the worlds climate.

I have never heard anyone put it quite like that before. That our actions could kill off 60-75% of the species on the planet.

Yeah, us.

I read the hardcover and give this book a 7 out of 10. There are some very good sections, but there are also a few that go nowhere for me. All in all, an interesting read.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Pulp Announcement - Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective Volume 2

Cornerstone Books and Airship 27 productions have just released their newest book - Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective Volume 2.

From the publisher - "Once again, Holmes fans, the game is afoot! Here is another collection of five brand new adventures featuring the Great Detective and his loyal companion, Dr.Watson. Writers Bernadette Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, Ian Watson and Andrew Salmon deliver solid, traditional mysteries in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle. Edited by Ron Fortier, design and interior art by Rob Davis with a cover by Ingrid Hardy."

This looks like a beautiful book from the publisher of my own Green Lama book, which is still available. Visit the Airship 27 Lulu site.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Spoiler Movie Review - Avatar


Avatar (2009)
Written and Directed by James Cameron
Released by 20th Century Fox
Spoiler-Filled, Ruin Your Good Time Review.

Go see Avatar before you read this review. Really, it is better without knowing everything. And if you knew everything, why would you see it?

You, if you are reading this blog, should see Avatar because it is a science fiction film in the best sense of those words. It is a movie about something, and tells its story through metaphor and parable. The movie uses imagined advances in science to tell a story about the human condition.

Go and don't come back until you have seen Avatar in IMAX 3D, or at least 3D.

As you know, because if you're reading this you have seen the movie :), Avatar is the story of Jake Sully, a paralyzed army grunt that signs up with a private security contractor to take the place his dead twin brother on the distant planet, Pandora. Jake takes the long term contract to pay for surgery to fix his legs.

When Jake gets to Pandora, a planet rich in a material nicknamed unobtanium, we learn that he was offered the contract for several reasons, with the main one being that a lot of money had been spent preparing an "avatar" of his brother to interact with the indignious intelligent species of Pandora, the Na'vi.

The avatar is a genetic mixture of his brother's DNA with that of a Na'vi. His brother died before he could serve his contract, but because they are identical twins, Jake is made the offer to serve in his place. The company will send Jake's consciousness into the body of the 10' tall Na'vi avatar.

Having lost the use of his legs, Jake quickly grows to enjoy occupying the Na'vi body and soon meets the Na'vi girl, Neytiri. He is separated from his group and Neytiri takes him to her Na'vi clan's tree home, a gigantic, towering tree.

When Jake and his friends in the avatar group decide that the destruction of the Treehome is a bad idea, they plot a revolt that sets them against their corporate employers.

There have been some attacks in the press saying that Avatar is just a Ferngully rip-off. That the film is anti-American. That the film is anti-human.That it is just a glossy retread of tired, overused ideas. That it is a green manifesto and a glorification of a noble savage treatise. Some of these criticisms are valid, some not.

I haven't seen Ferngully, but descriptions make it clear that the basic plot is very similar.

There is no doubt that there are many elements of the core story that have been done before.

We have seen the star-crossed lovers plot many times before.

Man goes into the wild and emerges changed, his perception altered to sympathize with the 'savages' who are more human than the invaders.

I'm sure there are earlier examples than Tarzan, but there's an example. Dances With Wolves has been cited as well, but clearly that is not the first either.

I didn't feel the film was anti-American as much and anti-corporate greed. Humanist. That perhaps people's lives are more important than corporate convenience.

Yes, we know he's going to get the girl, but that doesn't take away from their beautiful, and sometime thrilling romance.

Merciless corporate forces are a staple of science fiction, and a strong component of James Cameron's work as well. The Terminator series have Cyberdyne, and Aliens has them as well. It should come as no surprise that he uses that theme here as well.

I think the film is brilliant in many regards, if a bit predictable in its overall story. There were few moments where I was shocked, but many, many times when I was awed.

The 3-D was beautifully done. Unobtrusive, not show-offy at all. We got to be immersed in the story and the world of Pandora as James Cameron and his collaborators imagined it. The language, the geography, the flora and spectacular fauna, all part of a biologically linked world as a single life-form that is callously attacked by alien invaders.

There were many moments of pure cinematic joy, and a few bad ones. I'm not a big fan of the floating mountains. They are beautiful, but are very difficult to justify as science fiction. If they contain a lot of unobtanium, then why doesn't the company just scoop them up? If they don't contain unobtanium, then how are they floating?

Watching the movie, I was also never clear on what unobtanium is. Reading all the info online I learned that it is a room temperature super-conductor and would therefore float in a magnetic field. But they were also covered with rocks and trees and streams. Wouldn't the weight of all that pull it down? Either way, this went unexplained and for me was bothersome.

The actors were quite good and it was especially nice to see Sigourney Weaver in a great part. What is remarkable is how much the human/na'vi avatars look like their actors. Her avatar is a great likeness of a young, ten foot tall blue Sigourney.

It is clear why Cameron cast Sam Worthington. He is a terrific actor who was also the best thing in Terminator 3. I guess McG figured that if he was good enough for Cameron, he was good enough for him. (Avatar was shot before T3)

Also of note is Stephen Lang, who plays Col. Quaritch with grit and misguided but genuine honor.

As I was watching, I wasn't sure exactly how all this was done. I hadn't read all the article and interviews, hadn't seen the ET or Access Hollywood stories. I am not an uneducated viewer. I have been working in the film industry for more than 25 years. I was a Visual Effects Editor on Terminator 2 (although I never met James Cameron until Comic-Con last year). And yet... I had no idea how they did the faces of the Na'vi. As I watched I became convinced that they had somehow put in actual photography of the actors in makeup, just for the mouths, and combined it with the CGI. The characters are that real.

Of course I have now learned that the Na'vi are, in visual terms, all CGI. As it turns out, the performance capture and facial capture were just way better than anything ever done before.

For the digital cinematography, Cameron used a technique I had first heard about for the cool CG animated film, Surf's Up. The scenes are all blocked out and performed and given a low res render. Then the director looks through an electronic 'camera' and can see the scene and walk around it as if he was in the physical space. Multiple angles can easily be created of the same scene and be turned over to editorial. Surf's Up used a similar technique to achieve their hand-held documentary look.

Of course there was still a lot of traditional material shot on set, but even then there was a lot of CG added.

There is so much good SF here and with any luck the spectacular success of Avatar will encourage other filmmakers to tell other good SF stories, either original or adaptations. The sheer volume of quality SF literature has been laying dormant, waiting for someone in Hollywood to see that there is an audience for it.

Science Fiction in literature has been around for well over a hundred years. That is a lot of time, and there are a lot of great authors and great books. Perhaps we are finally at a place where Hollywood will see that.

I saw Avatar in Imax 3D ($15) and give Avatar a 9.5 out of 10.